Omaha Public Schools made a sensible move this week in hiring its own staff lawyer.
The OPS board hired attorney Megan Neiles-Brasch at $132,000 a year to serve as in-house counsel. Formerly with the Nebraska Association of School Boards and Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations, she appears highly qualified for a job that includes labor negotiations and handling routine legal work, such as advising the school board at its meetings and reviewing real estate deals.
The benefits to taxpayers go well beyond the arithmetic, but that's a good place to start.
OPS has paid more than $13 million over the past five years to the Baird Holm law firm to handle its legal work. The 2012-13 bill totaled $1.42 million.
World-Herald staff writer Erin Duffy reported Wednesday that 43 Baird Holm lawyers and eight paralegals spent a total of 5,914 hours working on OPS legal matters at an hourly rate of about $212, although much of the work fell under the $11,500 monthly retainer Baird Holm receives.
The new OPS staff lawyer undoubtedly will spend more time on the job, but working a 40-hour week for 50 weeks a year would total 2,000 hours annually. At $212 per hour, that time would be worth $424,000, so there's $292,000 in savings right there.
With her day-to-day legal work, Neiles-Brasch will be in position to do more.
She can direct the district's legal traffic, deciding which matters she can handle herself, which need to go to outside lawyers and which cases may not require a lawyer at all.
She can expand on the wise steps taken by former interim OPS superintendent Virginia Moon, who made changes to allow department heads to review legal fees monthly and to check that proper procedures are followed in seeking legal advice. OPS employees also got training in handling routine matters that once led to calls to lawyers.
David Kramer, the school board's current lead attorney from Baird Holm, and some OPS board members are wondering whether the school district will save money by hiring its own lawyer. Kramer suggested that legal expenses could increase, and board President Justin Wayne and Superintendent Mark Evans said savings are difficult to predict.
Legal costs were a key issue in the spring elections for the revamped OPS board. Voters spoke clearly.
But financial considerations were by no means the only reason the OPS board has been considering changes in how it gets legal help. The old board rightly drew criticism about its outside attorney being given too much authority on policy matters and in the failed hiring of a new superintendent in 2012.
Hiring in-house counsel is a good start toward addressing all of these concerns, and certainly part of the success of this move should be evaluated in cost savings to taxpayers.
The OPS board also is weighing whether to renew the contract with its longtime firm or to seek other bids for outside legal work. The cost-conscious approach would be to cast a wider net and see if a better arrangement is available.
While there is no way to eliminate OPS legal costs or to predict how many times the district might face costly lawsuits, it is difficult to imagine how hiring an in-house lawyer wouldn't help save tax dollars.
The board and superintendent need to make sure this hire does that.